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More methane: Interior eases rules curbing leaks from oil and gas leases on federal land

Gas flares at a natural gas processing facility near Williston, N.D., on Feb. 25, 2015. The Interior Department on Sept. 18, 2018, finalized the rollback of an Obama-era regulation aimed at restricting harmful methane emissions from oil and gas production on federal lands. (Matthew Brown/AP)

In the fourth rollback of a major federal climate rule in less than two months, the Interior Department eased requirements Tuesday that oil and gas firms operating on federal and tribal land capture the release of methane, a potent greenhouse gas.

Officials said that the rule, adopted in 2016, was duplicative, given state laws, and imposed too heavy a burden on the private sector. Environmentalists and Democrats vowed to fight the reversal in court, saying that it would lead to greater air pollution and boost emissions linked to climate change.

The 2016 regulation required operators to capture methane leaks, install more modern controls and develop a plan to reduce the release of the heat-trapping gas, which, for the first 20 years after being released into the atmosphere, is roughly 86 times more powerful than carbon dioxide.

The new rule largely eliminates those requirements, including limits on how much methane can be released and burned off. Experts said the previous standards would have prevented the release of nearly 180,000 tons of methane into the atmosphere each year.

Kate MacGregor, deputy chief of staff for policy at the Interior Department, said the cost of meeting the previous requirements could have forced operators of marginal wells out of business. They account for 73 percent of leases on Bureau of Land Management property.

“We wanted to ensure these reserves are not being abandoned in the ground due to high compliance costs,” she said.

The question of how to curb accidental leaks and the venting and flaring of methane from oil and gas operations has sparked an intense political and legal fight since President Trump took office. Methane leaks account for 1.4 to 2.3 percent of overall U.S. natural gas output, according to government and independent studies.

According to Interior’s analysis, the reduction in compliance costs would outweigh the royalties taxpayers would otherwise have received on the captured oil and gas, for a net saving of $734 million to $1.01 billion over a decade.

Critics of the move, including Democratic Sens. Tom Udall (N.M.) and Michael F. Bennet (Colo.), asked why the administration would reverse a regulation that generated federal revenue and enjoyed significant public support. Udall said that 98 percent of the 600,000 comments the Bureau of Land Management received opposed the rule’s repeal.

“With federal leadership failing under the Trump administration, states like New Mexico and responsible natural gas producers must step up and act to stop methane emissions on their own, or natural gas risks losing out in the future clean-energy economy,” Udall said.

Oil and gas officials, by contrast, welcomed the move and noted that methane emissions have dropped 14 percent since 1990, while natural gas production has increased more than 50 percent in that period.